Skip to main content
Placeholder while loading article actions

In February, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin addressed the Russian people, saying that Ukraine was a fiction. Carved from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, it claimed it was in fact part of Russia, with its people rejecting the idea of ​​Ukrainian sovereignty.

He was wrong. As the Baltic republics issued several declarations of independence in 1991 and the Soviet Union was in the throes of disintegration, the Ukrainian parliament – under pressure from Moscow to remain part of a union of Post-Soviet States – held a vote on independence on August 24, 1991. The results were staggering, with 346 MPs voting in favour, five abstaining and just two voting against.

Three months later, on December 1, 1991, Ukraine held a national independence referendum. With a turnout of 84% of eligible voters, the result surprised even the most optimistic Ukrainian leaders: more than 90% voted for independence. On the same day, the people of Ukraine chose Leonid Kravchuk to be the country’s first president in an election in which all six candidates campaigned for independence. In this astonishing display of near-unanimity, the Ukrainian government and people came out loud and clear in favor of a clean break with Russia.

The emergence of a sovereign Ukraine in 1991 was the culmination of a century of struggle for independence. And it reminds us that Ukrainian national identity has been deeply felt for more than a century.

The first Ukrainian declarations of independence took place during and immediately after World War I. The Central Rada – a coordinating body of Ukrainian political and cultural organizations in Kyiv – proclaimed the independence of Ukraine on January 22, 1918. The emotional tone of the proclamation, written by the head of the Rada, historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky , was unmistakable. “The Ukrainian People’s Republic hereby becomes an independent, free and sovereign state of the Ukrainian people, subject to no one.”

Following the declaration, the Ukrainian government sent 400 irregular fighters 100 miles northeast of the town of Kruty to halt the advancing Russian troops. The 27 Ukrainian fighters who were killed in this battle are considered the first martyrs of the defense of Ukrainian independence.

After formally declaring statehood, representatives of the Ukrainian People’s Republic signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers in Brest-Litovsk on February 9, 1918. In doing so, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey have officially recognized Ukraine’s independence and pledged to secure its borders. A few days after the treaty, the armies of the Central Powers entered Ukraine, driving the Bolsheviks from Kyiv on March 2, 1918. The following day, at the peak of German military power in Eastern Europe during World War I, the Central Powers power plants signed a second peace treaty in Brest-Litovsk, this time with representatives of the Bolshevik government led by Leon Trotsky, forcing Russia to recognize the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

Between March and November 1918, a sovereign and independent Ukraine with its capital in Kyiv functioned for the first time. But with the defeat of the Central Powers and the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, the victorious Allies declared the Treaties of Brest-Litovsk invalid. In an instant, the recognition Ukrainians had received from two major European powers – Germany and Austria-Hungary – was withdrawn and the eight-month-old Ukrainian People’s Republic was left to fend for itself without the means to do it.

At the same time, amid the collapse of Austria-Hungary, an empire that included Lviv and eastern Galicia, the last Habsburg viceroy in Lviv handed over control of the city to the Ukrainians of Lviv. Under the leadership of prominent lawyer Yevhen Petrushevych, they announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of West Ukraine. At Lviv City Hall, Ukrainian forces hoisted the national flag, seized government buildings, the main railway station, telephone and telegraph services and the post office.

The move caused serious concern in resurgent Poland, whose head of state and commander-in-chief, Jozef Pilsudski, considered Lviv to be Polish. Pilsudski’s troops advanced on Lviv, expelling Ukrainian armed forces on November 21, 1918. As Ukrainian fighters were driven further east by the Poles, forcing the western Ukrainian government to relocate, representatives of the two Ukrainian republics agreed to merge, proclaiming a de facto single and undivided Ukraine.

But as the Russian Civil War raged – a conflict between the Bolshevik Red Army and the anti-Bolshevik White Army in which both opposed Ukrainian independence – hopes for Ukrainian sovereignty grew more weak. Ukrainian and Polish leaders reached a political and military agreement in April 1920 with the Treaty of Warsaw, in which Poland officially recognized the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Ukraine officially recognized Polish sovereignty over Eastern Galicia and Western Volynia.

Polish and Ukrainian troops immediately joined a military campaign to defend Kyiv against Russia. And on May 7, 1920, they did just that. “At a time when the Polish army is fighting a common enemy alongside brave Ukrainian troops,” Pilsudski told his Ukrainian counterpart, General Symon Petliura, “this successful joint struggle between the Ukrainian Republic and Poland will bring lasting prosperity to both nations. Pilsudski assured the Ukrainian people that Polish troops would withdraw once the Ukrainian government and armed forces could defend themselves against Russian aggression. He stressed that the Polish armed forces had come not as conquerors but in allies.

But the Red Army counter-attacked a month later, forcing the Polish and Ukrainian armies to retreat. In August 1920, the Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw only to be pushed back by a strong Polish counteroffensive. When the armies of Poland and Bolshevik Russia signed an armistice in October 1920, the resulting Treaty of Riga divided Ukraine between the two countries. Ukraine’s struggle for independence had failed. In 1922, the Bolsheviks created the Soviet Union, which included the constituent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

But even then, Ukrainians around the world still marked January 22 – the day in 1918 when the Ukrainian People’s Republic was declared – as Independence Day. This changed on August 24, 1991, when 98% of Ukrainian parliamentarians voted for separation from Russia. Subsequently, Ukrainians celebrated this day as Independence Day.

Today, as Ukraine faces an existential crisis in its war with Russia, Poland has not only taken in more refugees than any other country, but is also the largest contributor of military aid to the Ukraine after the United States. This sentiment goes back more than a century, when in 1920, the founding father of modern Poland, Pilsudski, defended Ukrainian independence and put his country’s troops in danger to support the Ukrainian cause. Then, when Western democracies sharply condemned Poland for provoking Russia in its defense of Kyiv, Pilsudski sternly responded with a warning to the West: Without an independent Ukraine, he said, Europe will not will never be safe.

It’s no surprise that 71 years later, in December 1991, when the then 57-year-old Kravchuk became independent Ukraine’s first president, he reportedly said, “If only Pilsudsky were alive today!” Kravchuk, who served as president until 1994, remained in the nation’s life until his death last month and was a supporter of President Volodymyr Zelensky in the 2019 presidential elections. Kravchuk, who had fallen into the coma, regained consciousness shortly before his death. At that time, he issued a definitive advice to the world: “Ukraine must be part of NATO,” he said. “There is no other option for Ukraine because today it is defending its territory against Russian aggression.”